The notion of a “Thucydides Trap” that will ensnare China and the United States in a 21st century conflict—much as the rising power of Athens alarmed Sparta and made war “inevitable” between the Aegean superpowers of the 5th century BCE—has received global attention since entering the international relations lexicon 6 years ago. Scholars, journalists, bloggers, and politicians in many countries, notably China, have embraced this beguiling metaphor, coined by Harvard political science professor Graham Allison, as a framework for examining the likelihood of a Sino-American war. As Allison summarizes the concept,
When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, alarm bells should sound, extreme danger ahead. This is a big insight earned for us by Thucydides. And Thucydides said, famously, it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable. This was the war between Athens and Sparta that basically destroyed classical Greece.1
Allison’s active promotion has given Thucydides (ca. 460–ca. 399 BCE), historian of the Peloponnesian War, new cachet as a sage of U.S.-China relations. References in academic journals, politicians’ speeches, and political cartoons have become ubiquitous across the Indo-Pacific region. Allison examines this historical metaphor at length in his May 2017 book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
This case study examines the Thucydides Trap metaphor and the response it has elicited. Hewing closely to what the historian of the Peloponnesian War actually says about the causes and inevitability of war, it argues that, while Thucydides’ text does not support Allison’s normative assertion about the “inevitable” result of an encounter between “rising” and “ruling” powers, the History of the Peloponnesian War (hereafter, History) does identify elements of leadership and political dynamic that bear directly on whether a clash of interests between two states is resolved through peaceful means or escalates to war. It is precisely because war typically begins with a considered decision by a national command authority to reject other options and mobilize for conflict (and thus always entails an element of choice) that insight from Thucydides’ History remains relevant and beneficial for the contemporary strategist, or citizen, concerned in such decisions.2
Accordingly, this case study concludes that the Thucydides Trap, as conceived and presented by Graham Allison, draws welcome attention both to Thucydides and to the pitfalls of great power competition, but fails as a heuristic device or predictive tool in the analysis of contemporary events. Allison’s metaphor offers, at best, a potentially misleading over-simplification of Thucydides’ nuanced and problematic account of the origins of the epochal conflict that defined his age. Moreover, it overlooks actual insights from the History that can help political decisionmakers—including, but not limited to, those of the United States and China—either avoid war or, if ignored, pose genuine policy “traps” that can make an avoidable war more likely, and a necessary war more costly.
An old adage defines war as God’s way of teaching us geography, and experience shows that anxiety over potential war can be equally instructive.3 The 1954 Taiwan Strait Crisis taught American voters the location and strategic significance of the previously little-known island groups of Quemoy and Matsu, a geography lesson that helped persuade them to elect Dwight Eisenhower to a second term. Lingering tensions after the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis made the islands a hot topic in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. Kennedy’s confident articulation of a nuanced position—supporting nationalist China but refusing to commit U.S. forces to protect tiny islands within range of mainland China’s artillery—helped tip the election against Nixon, whose pledge to protect Quemoy and Matsu as a matter of principle was widely judged too bellicose.4
The 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis again drew global attention to China’s regional relations and territorial claims. In dispatching a U.S. carrier battle group to the region, U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry issued a tough public declaration: “Beijing should know . . . that while they are a great military power, the premier—the strongest—military power in the Western Pacific is the United States.”5 Arduous diplomacy defused the crisis and U.S.-Chinese relations in time resumed a positive footing. In fact, as the likelihood of conflict receded, the massive growth of two-way exchange transformed the U.S.-China bilateral relationship in ways that neither Eisenhower, nor Kennedy or Nixon could have foreseen.
Bilateral trade in goods burgeoned from $63.5 billion in 1996 to a staggering $599 billion in 2015. As a result, export-led growth transformed China’s domestic economy as the country’s middle class grew from 4 percent of the population in 2004 to 54 percent in 2012.6 With a 15.9 percent share of America’s global trade, China surpassed Canada to become the largest U.S. trading partner for the first time in 2016 (which also marked the 5th consecutive year in which the U.S. trade deficit with China topped $300 billion).7 Over the same 20-year period, China pursued a military buildup and a regional security policy that can be understood in large measure as a sustained effort to alter the power calculus behind Perry’s tough message in 1996.
In recent years, Beijing’s assertive actions in support of its enormous maritime claims in the South China and East China seas have confronted Washington with urgent new geography lessons. From remote survey stations in the Spratly/Nansha group in the mid-1990s, China has gradually expanded the scale and permanence of its offshore presence. In December 2013, China began extensive dredging and land reclamation efforts in support of its claims to three island groups in the South China Sea—the Spratly Islands, the Paracel/Xisha Islands, and the submerged Zhongsha Islands, which for China includes both the Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoal—and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Regional states, most allied with the United States, have protested China’s mounting pressure tactics—including direct naval action—to assert control and restrict international access to disputed small features like Mischief Reef.8 Years of diplomatic engagement with Beijing by its maritime neighbors, including Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam, have not slowed the Chinese drive to solidify its influence over the entire region.
The July 2016 international tribunal ruling against China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea and the subsequent policy lurch toward China and away from the United States by mercurial Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte have generated new uncertainties. The fact that two disputed territories, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (Japan) and the Scarborough Shoal (Philippines), are covered by U.S. bilateral defense treaties adds sensitive red lines to the regional map. Despite the enormous volume of U.S.-China bilateral trade and investment, the palpable expansion of Chinese economic and military power in the South China and the East China seas thus raises inescapable concerns about the potential for escalation and conflict.
President Donald Trump’s extended visit to the Indo-Pacific region—including stops in China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines (for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN]), and Vietnam (for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC] economic leaders meeting and CEO Summit)—brought renewed international attention to the Thucydides Trap metaphor at the end of 2017, even as regional concerns over island-building appeared to recede.
During a year in which escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program and missile tests dominated the news, China managed to dampen the furor over its island-building program, which now includes 7 outposts in the Spratlys and 20 in the Paracels, by projecting an image of goodwill toward its smaller maritime neighbors. Growing regional travel by Chinese tourists and investments under the rubric of the $900 billion “One Belt, One Road” initiative proved an effective palliative after escalating tensions through the preceding 3 years. While Chinese investment in far-flung port infrastructure construction and management is gradually altering the daily environment for sea-going traffic across a vast expanse of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Beijing also ended 6 years of stalling talks toward a long-sought ASEAN code of conduct designed to avoid clashes at sea. The negotiations, which will not address conflicting claims of maritime sovereignty, are set to resume in early 2018.
While China has repeatedly claimed that its dredging and reclamation projects ended in June 2015, reporting by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative indicates that the Chinese continue to reclaim land in the Paracels, including recent work at Tree Island and North Island.9 Some perceived that the interaction of U.S. and Chinese naval assets in the disputed regions had “settled into a comfortable groove,” but the continuing Chinese buildup of capabilities on its new island outposts—including repair of damage inflicted by Typhoon Sarika in October 2016 at multiple sites and the arrival of fighter jets on Woody Island, the primary Chinese base in the Paracels—perpetuated uncertainty over Chinese intentions and the ominous long-term implications of the Thucydides Trap.10